Somewhere between Allen Funt and season 245 of Survivor, reality television has become the most popular genre of television. We’ve seen a handful of photography-centered shows, but not nearly enough. Frankly, even I got tired of watching the drama of America’s Next Top Model just so I could watch 10 minutes of photography. Thanks to Rankin and the BBC, we’ve been giving something much better.
The Great British Photography Challenge promises to be something more than just more reality T.V. Over The TGBPC’s run, we’re going to see renowned photographer Rankin mentor six amateur and semi-amateur photographers.
Where Rankin and the BBC Excel
There is an appalling lack of mentoring in the photography world. I’ve been a part of several different industries over my life, some of them notoriously cutthroat. Despite being a lawyer, I’ve never seen the kind of apathy towards helping out fellow practitioners as I’ve seen in the photographer industry. A chance to see Rankin’s feedback process is, not to gild the lily, a patch of sunshine.
Feedback and Mentors
From the get-go, I needed to know why Rankin decided to get involved with a BBC reality program. Rankin's immediate and unequivocal answer became the theme of our conversation. Doing something positive for photography was the key to his involvement.
Rankin has been quoted in the past explaining that any critique of a photograph is based on an immediate feeling; basically, that all photography-related feedback is subjective. I was curious, if feedback is so subjective, why participate in a show that creates drama out of feedback? After all, how is subjective feedback really all that valuable to objective growth?
Rankin didn't shy from his earlier statements. He still believes that any critique of a photograph is subjective. In fact, Rankin was emphatic that he isn't a tastemaker. But, and this is a big but, Rankin feels that his experience in the industry puts him in a position to help aspiring photographers. Sure, after decades of photography, Rankin has mastered the technical elements, so he can always point photographers in the right direction technically. More than that, however, his 30 years in the photography and magazine editing industry perfectly place him to help photographers understand the ins and outs of the process and business of photography.
Feedback on the Process of Photography
Rankin's goal when providing support to emerging photographers like those on The TGBPC is to help them understand the process and demands of running a successful photography business.
Preparation, preparation, preparation . . .
For Rankin, the maxim: preparation, preparation, preparation isn't just a cliché; it's actually the key to success. Rankin strives to point out to new photographers that when shoots are planned, when the photographer has done their best to visualize and consider the inevitable hangups and bumps before the shoot begins, there is that much more room for creativity. Avoiding complications and shooting with intention frees photographers up to see their commissions or projects in uncluttered and hopefully new, creative ways.
Photography is a Business
Passion is important, hard work is key.
Photography is a very competitive industry that requires photographers to be artists while being successful at sales and business. As Rankin points out, there is a lot to learn about the business of photography beyond clicking a shutter. If a passion for photography is a critical requirement requirement for being a good photographer, being able to navigate the hurdles and pitfalls of handling a commission, brief, or client requests with grace and efficiency is just as critical to running a successful photography business.
According to Rankin, passion is important, but hard work is the key.
Learning to Provide Feedback
While discussing the importance of feedback to the premise of the TGBPC, I asked Rankin if he was always so proficient at providing feedback. Rankin explained that he wasn't always comfortable providing feedback. Providing feedback can be difficult. As a photographer, Rankin sees himself as a communicator, using images to persuade. As a mentor, Rankin believes that it's critical to persuade people to have confidence in their own skills and creative impulses.
As an experienced photographer, Rankin favors brutal honesty when he's given feedback. However, his approach in the TGBPC is to provide honesty in a productive way. Honesty is critical, but building confidence should be the goal of any mentor.
. . . building confidence should be the goal . . .
According to Rankin, building the skills necessary to be a mentor can actually make us all better photographers. Being a better mentor means understanding how someone might receive your feedback. This means developing the skills necessary to get your point across in a productive fashion — effectively becoming a better communicator. If as photographers we're communicators, why not work on all facets of these skills.
Rankin is also quick to mention that his early success brought him an arrogance and level of self-confidence that outpaced the development of his own wisdom. For Rankin, this meant learning to be his own critic. Evaluating your own work with an open mind will help you look at other challenges with an open mind.
Work on being your own critic.
If you're able to open your mind to feedback, to see multiple angles, you're going to become better at problem-solving, you're going to get better and seeing potential problems in commissions before they crop up. This is going to make you a better photographer.
Rankin also believes that receiving feedback with an open mind will also make you a better collaborator. After all, collaborations are about working with other artists. Being able to take their feedback and build a collaborative vision will likely end with superior work.
Be a sponge, you'll be a better collaborator
Rankin notes that the best leaders are those that listen to the feedback from their team before making a decision. So, looking down the road, learning to receive and provide productive feedback will make a you better leader on bigger sets.
In Steps the BBC
With a productive feedback process in mind, Rankin is hoping that his participation in the TGBPC on the BBC will inspire photographers.
It's not so much a competition as it is a salon.
While helping to develop the TGBPC, Rankin was adamant that nobody should be voted off the show. For Rankin, the goal is to educate stronger photographers and to allow the audience of the show to see the process and effort required to advance in our profession. Rankin doesn't see a place for the false jeopardy of being voted off in his view of mentoring. I tend to agree. As Rankin says, it's not so much a competition as it is a salon.
Rankin intends the TGBPC to encourage viewers to have a conversation about photography. Rankin would consider the TGBPC a success if viewers use the show to start their own photographic journey, to spur themselves on to their own adventure.
Mobile Phone Challenges
The mobile phone challenges used to start the shows are intended to tempt viewers into going out to shoot the commissions themselves. Rankin is a proponent of the idea that we're all contributing to the development of the language of photography. Rankin believes that mobile phone photography has moved beyond selfies and dinner plate photography. He hopes that the show can excite viewers about photography and that the accessibility of mobile phone challenges will see viewers rush out to contribute to this growing language.
I'd love to see the TGBPC turned into an annual series. I suspect that Rankin would as well. I pressed him on what's next for the show, but, expressing humility, Rankin mentioned that he is tempering his expectations while the BBC mulls the success of the show.
Having Rankin on the phone, curiosity got the better of me and I asked Rankin what he's been working on during lockdown. Rankin has used the lockdown to work on a personal project focusing on flowers. You can find his new work at: @florabyrankin
Rankin images provided by Rankin Photography Ltd. Press images provided by the BBC.